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Music

The 10 best Latin albums of the decade

Rosalía
Rosalía performs at the Latin Grammys in 2019.
(Cortesía)

The streaming revolution has done wonders for Latin music, allowing anyone in the world to fall in love with the latest innovations from Buenos Aires, Lima or Santo Domingo, no matter how obscure it may be. Reggaetón and various urban fusions dominate the charts, effectively becoming the new face of Latin pop, but there is also space for wonderful albums in the rock, Afro-Caribbean and Brazilian genres. Here’s a selection of 10 superlative albums of the decade, one per country (or U.S. territory, in the case of Puerto Rico). As always with this kind of list, many strong contenders have been left behind. Still, these are all indispensable additions to any comprehensive Latin music collection.

ARGENTINA

Él Mató a un Policía Motorizado, “La Síntesis O’Konor” (Nacional, 2017)
Together with Mexico, Argentina has been the epicenter of Latin rock since its inception. The genre’s new ray of hope arrived in the guise of an unassuming band from the provincial city of La Plata, influenced by indie heroes like My Bloody Valentine and the Pixies. Like any rock en español band worth its salt, Él Mató a un Policía Motorizado spins those Anglo influences into something novel by incorporating the evocative power of the Spanish language and achingly beautiful melodies marked by a distinct South American sensibility. A short, hypnotic affair, “La Síntesis O’Konor” is the most fully realized of the three albums the group released this decade. Must-stream track: “El Tesoro”

BRAZIL

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Marisa Monte, “O Que Você Quer Saber de Verdade” (EMI, 2011)
From Mallu Magalhães and Rubel to Tulipa Ruiz and Céu, this past decade has given us enough wondrous albums by Brazilian artists to fill an entire list. A luminous session defined by the gorgeous inflections of her voice, Monte’s eighth album finds her honoring the innocence of ’60s tropicália with an ethereal cover of Jorge Ben Jor’s “Descalço No Parque,” then concocting an instant MPB anthem on “Depois,” collaborating with Arnaldo Antunes and Carlinhos Brown, fellow members of supergroup Tribalistas. This was the record that reconfirmed Monte as the most transcendent artist working in contemporary Brazilian pop. Must-stream track: “Depois.”

CHILE

Ana Tijoux, “La Bala” (Nacional, 2011)
Latin music has never been the same since the Chilean rapper released her second solo album, “1977,” in 2010. This follow-up to “1977” is even better, a sumptuous fusion of old-school hip-hop, soul and orchestral soundscapes. A duet with Uruguayan troubadour Jorge Drexler, “Sacar La Voz” is tender and emotive. Brilliantly arranged by Andrés Celis, “Desclasificado” sounds like a mini rap symphony channeling Prokofiev. Must-stream track: “Desclasificado.”

J Balvin
J Balvin performs at the 2015 Latin Grammys.
(Chris Pizzello/Invision/Associated Press)

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COLOMBIA

J Balvin, “Vibras” (Universal Latino, 2018)
No genre has polarized Latin music fans like reggaetón. Cultured tastemakers were quick to announce that it signaled the end of civilization as we knew it — an aesthetic nadir, the apocalypse now. True, some of it can be vulgar and pedestrian. But reggaetón has beauty and imagination to spare. Medellín-born J Balvin interpreted the genre’s bouncy and inescapable beat — rooted in Panamanian reggae, we so often forget — and stamped reggaetón as the DNA of a new global pop movement en español. Boasting guest spots by Spain’s Rosalía and Mexico’s Carla Morrison, “Vibras” is a masterpiece of the genre. Must-stream track: “Mi Gente.”

CUBA

Alexander Abreu & Havana D’Primera, “Pasaporte” (Páfata Productions, 2013)
A frantic fusion of salsa and funk, timba has dominated the records coming out of Cuba for the last 30 years. Singer and trumpet player Alexander Abreu spent the last decade updating and refining the sound of timba with his band Havana D’Primera. “Pasaporte” is arguably his best effort, a crisp session of Afro-Cuban dance beats performed at the speed of light, with impeccable brass arrangements and spidery piano tumbaos. Must-stream track: “Pa’ Mi Gente.”

DOMINICAN REPUBLIC

Vicente García, “A la Mar” (Sony, 2016)
Before Juan Luis Guerra emerged in the ’90s, bachata was frowned upon in its native Dominican Republic — the coarse dance fare of the underprivileged. Guerra singlehandedly corrected this, showcasing bachata as a delicate song format filled with subtlety and grace. Also from Santo Domingo, singer-songwriter García picked up where Guerra left off, tackling the tropical pop single as a cosmopolitan art object. On the nocturnal “Carmesí,” he evokes frailty and hope, showcasing the kind of self-assured songwriting that harks back to the golden era of bolero. Must-stream track: “Carmesí.”

Natalia Lafourcade
Natalia Lafourcade in concert
(Craig T. Mathew and Greg Grudt/Mathew Imaging/Los Angeles Philharmonic
)

MEXICO

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Natalia Lafourcade, “Hasta la Raíz” (Sony, 2015)
Going against any reasonable prediction, the Mexican singer-songwriter has established herself as one of the most popular artists throughout the Americas even though she has favored some highly unusual musical choices: a symphonic cycle devoted to the seasons, a tribute to bolero legend Agustín Lara, an album of folk gems from the Latin treasure trove. But straight-ahead pop-rock is Lafourcade’s forte, and “Hasta la Raíz” found her at a peak of inspiration, recovering from a romantic heartbreak and channeling her love of retro harmonic progressions. Anyone who has seen Lafourcade in concert raves about the pathos in her voice. It would be a mistake to ignore her gift for sugary pop hooks. Must-stream track: “Mi Lugar Favorito.”

PUERTO RICO

iLé, “iLevitable” (Sony, 2016)
Because it included the anthem “Latinoamérica,” Calle 13’s 2010 “Entren Los Que Quieran” was a natural choice for best Puerto Rican album of the decade. But it so happens that Calle 13’s female vocalist, iLe, launched her own sonic revolution at the same time. The 30-year-old ventured away from the band’s urban sounds, focusing instead on a reinvention of tropical music. Both her albums are indispensable, but the first gains extra points on the strength of a raucous boogaloo (“Te Quiero con Bugalú”) and a smoldering bolero duet with salsa godfather Cheo Feliciano, who died in 2014. Must-stream track: “Te Quiero con Bugalú.”

SPAIN

Rosalía, “El Mal Querer” (Columbia, 2018)
Latin music was in dire need of fresh air at the end of the decade. Enter Rosalía’s “El Mal Querer,” a conceptual tour de force about a love affair turned bitter. Having completed academic studies on flamenco, Rosalía Vila Tobella teamed up with producer El Guincho for a fusion of flamenco and the hip-hop hits that she grew up listening to. Feeling more like a mystical sonic ritual than an actual album, “El Mal Querer” oozes attitude and grandeur. It allowed Rosalía to transcend the restraints of Latin music, becoming a worldwide critical darling and commercial phenomenon. Must-stream track: “Malamente.”

U.S.

Orquesta Narvaez, “65 Infantería” (Dewell Narvaez, 2013)
Orquesta Narváez emerged during the apex of the salsa explosion in New York, releasing a solitary album in 1975 that quickly became a cult item. Led by trombonist Dewell Narváez, the orchestra returned in 2013 for a stunning comeback session that managed to make classic salsa hip again. From the percolating “El Otoño” — with slick touches of Brazilian samba — to the earthiness of the Arsenio Rodríguez tribute “Bruja Mariqua,” “65 Infantería” sounds both mature and orgiastic — the most self-assured salsa album of the decade. Must-stream track: “El Otoño.”


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